Celebrating Success in the Criminal Justice System: Quakers in Criminal Justice Conference 2013
Quakers in Criminal Justice (QICJ) is an informal network of Quakers with an active interest in criminal justice. I recently joined them in Swanwick, Derbyshire, England, at their annual conference which had a theme of celebrating successes in criminal justice. Examples from Scotland, Ireland, and England illustrated many positive developments taking place in criminal justice where Quakers have had an active involvement. For me, working at the European level, these UK examples were extremely useful. They related the abstract to the practical, the policy to the prisoner, cementing my understanding of Friends’ traditional involvement in prison system reform and criminal justice.
Imprisoned in conflict
The conference opened with a lecture by David Bass of Quaker Service in Northern Ireland. He reflected on the successful influence of Quakers both within the prison system and in support of prisoners’ families in Northern Ireland. When I was small, I constantly heard about Northern Ireland and ‘the Troubles’ in conversations and in the news, but I never fully grasped the scale and complexity of the conflict. From a secure childhood in England, the conflict in Northern Ireland seemed distant. I studied Irish history at school but never witnessed the reality of the conflict until I visited Northern Ireland on holiday in 2004. The barbed-wire, high-walled police stations, and the constant barrage of symbolic declarations with the Union Jack or the Irish flag in Belfast, opened my eyes to the impact of conflict on daily life and the tension within a society trapped in its own prison of war.
David Bass’s presentation focussed mainly on Maghaberry High-Security Prison, where segregation of inmates on the basis of political affiliation is common. The punitive system and the contained environment of a prison seems to heighten any pre-existing tension. In contrast to punishment and the degradation of human dignity of the prisoners, Restorative Justice is seen to have a positive influence on the outlook of individuals within the criminal justice system. The effects extend beyond individuals, allowing societies to heal from conflict that has for so long defined their lives.
David described Quaker work at the community level in Northern Ireland. Quaker Service built a visitor’s centre in Maghaberry Prison as a safe and supportive environment for those visiting the prison. Quaker Connections has also been established to support Quaker Service work by providing emotional and practical support to members of Maghaberry prisoners’ families. Volunteers befriend isolated inmates, providing contact with someone outside the prison system.
I was inspired to hear about the work of Quaker Cottage, found on Black Mountain overlooking the City of Belfast. It is a cross-community support centre, where mothers and children who have experienced trauma or who are having difficulties coping with daily life are able to find a safe haven. Art therapy, poetry and storytelling are used for teenagers as a way to express themselves, in order to gain valuable life skills, promote healthy behavior, and develop a sense of purpose. Some photographs of the art produced were shown, and one drawing greatly touched me. A young person had depicted a family member found hanged in the back garden as a consequence of community conflict – illustrating the context in which many Belfast children have grown up, reaffirming the need to build and restore peace!
The success of ‘restorative’ rather than ‘punitive’ justice was an underlying theme throughout the conference. Restorative Justice can be defined as: ‘processes bringing those harmed by conflict, and those responsible for the harm, into communication, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward’. In her lecture, ‘Restorative Justice: A practice whose time has come’, Marian Liebmann highlighted the positive effects of this model. Restorative Justice within the prison system has brought down rates of re-offence, thereby reducing overcrowding and unsatisfactory prison conditions. (It’s surprising that 59% of prisons in England and Wales are overcrowded.) The voice of silent victims, such as the family of those convicted, is no longer silent with restorative justice. In the context of schools and communities, restorative justice creates dialogue and facilitates positive change and reconciliation within the community.
In small workshops, we heard from Tim Newell about the ‘Escaping Victimhood’ project, which uses restorative and holistic approaches to support families who have been traumatised by crime. The ‘Alternatives to Violence Project’ (AVP) was also presented. AVP has been used within prisons to ‘transform power’ within people by supporting self-esteem, communication, cooperation, and problem solving, ultimately leading to a person being able to better handle conflict and violence. AVP is run through workshops within and outside the prison system.
Success in Scotland
The restorative approach has also been beneficial to the Scottish prison system, as discussed by Mike Nellis during his lecture ‘Criminal Justice in Scotland’. He highlighted how different the Scottish penal system is to the English system. In Scotland, rates of recidivism and crime have reduced, even during this economically uncertain period. For example, juvenile offenders referred to a children’s panel or ‘The Children Hearing System’ before prison is considered. The possibility of Scottish independence from the UK suggests that there may be further change within the Scottish system. If Scotland gained independence, would it become a pioneer of reform in the criminal justice system and legislation in the all EU Member States, like many Scandinavian countries?
I was led to ask why a government and judicial system wouldn’t fully endorse Restorative Justice. Is Restorative Justice really too expensive? Or are we caught by our instinctive nature to strike back when hurt? The long term benefits seem to outweigh the short-term costs. Experience suggests that Restorative Justice is not as expensive as many believe it to be. Restorative Justice’s success derives from the willingness of all parties coming together voluntarily in the mediation process, to take a step towards reconciliation. For me, government cuts to the charitable and voluntary sector are having knock-on effects within the UK, and Restorative Justice and alternatives to imprisonment must remain focal points for the European Union and Council of Europe criminal justice legislation.
During a Meeting for Worship at the conference, someone spoke about the downfalls of the judicial system in the UK, that whenever justice is ‘done’, someone must win and someone must lose. To me, this sums up the complexities of the judicial and penal system in the UK where such a system perpetuates inequality. Restorative Justice can step away from this concept; it supports equality within the system. The QICJ conference explored of the pitfalls and subsequent successes within the criminal justice system aptly demonstrating how Quakers have an influence on reforming the criminal justice system where the prisoner remains a person and peace between people is sought.